One of the favored words in Joe Taitano’s vocabulary is “potential.”

The Guam High cross country coach uses it often to describe the chances his team has of winning its first Far East team title. He also uses it to elaborate on freshman Susan Smith’s chances of becoming the school’s premier runner, on Guam and at the Far East level.

Taitano should know. In nearly three decades of coaching on Guam, the 65-year-old native of Dededo has 27 boys and 21 girls island team titles to his credit, coached John F. Kennedy to a Far East team title in 2000 and has mentored three Far East individual champions.

It might not happen this year. It might not happen next year. But Taitano is firm in his belief that it will happen for Guam High and Smith.

“We’re working toward heightening our program. Hopefully, we can get some things done this year and next year,” Taitano said, days after the Panthers boys and girls each captured third place in Guam’s All-Island meet at Nimitz Hill Golf Course last Thursday.

The boys went 6-2 and the girls 7-1 during the regular season. Last year, the girls finished second and the boys fifth in the Far East meet.

That consistency is matched by only one other Guam High program, wrestling, which has won successive All-Island championships. The Panthers have won only one Far East title, Class A boys basketball in 1998, and been to one other final, Class AA girls soccer in 2003.

“Hopefully, we can bring the program up to respectability,” Taitano said, adding that it’s a different ball of wax to build a program with Guam High’s transient population compared with JFK, where students normally stay from freshman year to graduation.

“It’s different. The mentality is different. But that’s going to change,” Taitano said.

He’s hopeful that Smith will be the runner leading that charge. Though she’s been on Guam seven years, her father Gerald, a tech sergeant at Andersen Air Force Base, plans to retire soon and the family has a house in nearby Yigo.

The fastest Smith has run on a 3.1-mile course this season is 21 minutes, 33 seconds in Guam High’s 26-29 victory over JFK, but it’s not times that make Taitano see greatness in Smith.

“She has a desire to excel. Her face says it all — she wants to be a fast runner. That kind of stuff you can’t coach,” Taitano said. “I can take her 22-minute times and hopefully, by her senior year, she can run in the high 18s.”

The soft-spoken 14-year-old won five Independent Interscholastic Athletic Association of Guam regular-season races.

“I like to run and I’m pretty good at it,” said Smith, who trains on the road from Yigo to Andersen’s back gate — about 1½ miles each way — and also runs 400-meter legs to improve her speed.

Smith and returning veterans such as Johanna Jorgensen, Sarah Jagodsinski, Robert Fry and Robert Lopez have melded together into what Smith calls “an army, a pack. We run strong together. You want a good time, but you want the team to do well, so we work hard to get both.”

Opposing coaches say they don’t doubt that Taitano’s optimism and predictions about Smith and his team will come true.

“They’re [Panthers] extremely good,” said George Washington coach Jay Antonio, who ran for Taitano at JFK from 1990-93.

Antonio has watched Smith in local 5K races.

“I see a drive in her,” he said. “She’s tough in the head. That’s what gives her her edge. She’s going to be really tough.”

With the Asia-Pacific Invitational on Guam this weekend and the Far East meet next month on Okinawa, Taitano wasn’t predicting anything other than “we’re producing something here. Our goal is to be competitive. If we sustain our peak phase, we should finish strong.”

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Dave Ornauer has been employed by or assigned to Stars and Stripes Pacific almost continuously since March 5, 1981. He covers interservice and high school sports at DODEA-Pacific schools and manages the Pacific Storm Tracker.

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